Volunteer army silent keepers of Olbrich Botanical Gardens
By Ian McCue | Tue, 06/26/2012 - 3:13pm
Hydrangeas, impatiens and day lilies add color and character to the bending stone walkways that close to 250,000 visitors pace along each year. A gold-plated Thai Pavilion sits in the far eastern corner, surrounded by bamboo stalks and exotic shrubbery. Everything is placed with precision and purpose.
The Olbrich Botanical Gardens — 16 acres of natural beauty, complete with the 50-foot tall, glass-plated Bolz Conservatory — are one of the top attractions on Madison’s East side. But the gardens employ no more than 35 people, instead relying heavily on a cadre of more than 600 volunteers to keep the flowers trimmed and to guide and answer the questions of visitors.
Marty Petillo, volunteer services coordinator, says the people she works with range from young professionals hoping to build a social life in an unfamiliar city to 90-year-old retirees committed to staying active in their free time. Petillo admits that one of the city’s most stunning landmarks could not operate without volunteers.
As the outdoor gardens open their gates at 8 a.m. each morning, a group of three to ten volunteers starts the day doing everything from answering questions at the visitor’s desk to manicuring the flower beds on their hands and knees.
“Everybody thinks they have the best crew, and the best garden,” says Petillo.
Though this army of public servants is composed mostly of retirees, among them are younger Madisonians like Andy Snyder, a 32-year-old meteorologist who works for Weather Central on the West side. Snyder, who resides in the Marquette neighborhood on the East side, spends three hours every Tuesday trimming flowers and laying fresh soil in the Rose Garden. He views his time as a way to fulfill a passion for gardening, which comes from spending his childhood on a rural Kentucky farm.
Even though his work schedule keeps him busy Thursday through Sunday, Snyder craves the outdoor activity in his free time. He has been an Olbrich volunteer since 2005, the same year he moved to Madison. While he admits that working with volunteers close to twice his age is “totally weird,” he looks forward to spending time socializing with fellow volunteers during the snack break they take together midway through the shift.
“A lot of them are in their 60s or 70s even,” Snyder says of the people he works alongside. “So that’s interesting to hang out with a different age group than I’m used to — fills in for getting to hang out with my grandma.”
While Snyder enjoys getting his hands dirty digging up weeds and planting new flower beds, others find themselves better suited for explaining different areas of the gardens to visitors. Shirley Haidinger, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources retiree, serves as a docent in Olbrich’s Thai Garden. A seven-year veteran of Olbrich’s volunteer program, she thrives on the social interaction and enjoys retelling the history of the pavilion — the only one in the continental United States — to new guests every day.
Haidinger, who also helps with the adult education classes on topics including gardening techniques and garden photography, sees volunteering as a way of giving back to a place she frequented before retiring. A longtime Madison resident, she was a member of the botanical gardens before taking on a volunteer role.
“I find it rewarding, it’s sort of educating people in a sense, but talking to people and getting their feedback,” Haidinger explains.
With quite divergent backgrounds, it’s no surprise that Haidinger and Snyder didn’t land their assigned roles at Olbrich by chance. Utilizing her human resources and management experience, Petillo meets with each volunteer for a one-on-one orientation before they set foot in the gardens. It’s all part of the carefully coordinated program that allows more than 100 new volunteers each year to assimilate into the established networks of Olbrich’s seasoned veterans.
As part of the program, those who surpass the 1,000 volunteer hour mark earn a star on their nametag — a kind of rite of passage — and those who hit the staggering 7,000 hour mark lay claim to a “volunteer career.”
Volunteers like UW-Madison student Mackenzie Fochs, who graduated in May with dual degrees in horticulture and life sciences communication, have hours to go before earning these honors but nevertheless represent another slice of the Olbrich volunteer workforce. Fochs volunteered at the gardens before working as a horticulture intern in 2010 and served as a public relations and education intern this spring. Unlike the other volunteers, she sees working at the community gardens as a way to gain hands-on experience before launching a career in public horticulture.
“The best part is just being able to surprise people with the cool things about plants,” Fochs says with enthusiasm. “Just being able to share the knowledge with people is awesome.”
There is no prototype for the typical Olbrich Gardens volunteer. But according to a survey Petillo conducted several years ago, the most popular reason people volunteered was a belief in the gardens’ mission and an interest in supporting the greater Madison community.
Each person who contributed to the 26,000 volunteer hours spent tending the botanical gardens last year has a unique story, an independent motive for helping craft this free and one-of-a-kind public space.
But if there is one shared motivation to dedicating such time to this community resource, it’s the sense of reward that comes with helping preserve the value and beauty of the Olbrich Gardens.
“By being a part of such a large crew, you often really get to know Madison in a different way through the eyes of different people,” Petillo says.
- Appalachian Ridge NA
- Glen Oak Hills
- Hill Farms
- Mendota Beach
- Midvale Heights
- Oakwood Village
- Old Middleton Greenway
- Parkwood Hills
- Parkwood Village
- Parkwood West
- Skyview Terrace
- Spring Harbor
- Stonefield Woods-Ridge
- Summit Woods
- University Hill Farms
- Wisconsin Co-op Housing
- Woodland Hills
- Woodlands Hills Condominum
- Wyndemere Condominum